DM: Deck Master or Diminished Modes?
For the past few years Dungeons & Dragons owner Wizards of the Coast has enlisted the services of video game developer Stainless Games to craft a digital version of their widely popular and pioneering collectible card game (or CCG for short) Magic: The Gathering . Each year we have seen an improvement in the interface, playable modes, and fluidity of control. With Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 , the series has taken one giant step forward with its deck building feature, but also several steps back in gameplay and technical aspects, as well as dumping a hefty tab on gamers looking to unlock all the content.
As always, you take the role of a Planeswalker–a magical being able to conjure mighty creatures, powerful sorcery spells, and potent artifacts, in an attempt to strike down your opponents. As a player, these tools of course come in the form of playing cards. With five colors to choose from–Black, White, Red, Green, and Blue–you can form fierce combinations of spells, played by using land cards which provides mana to cast these spells.
Magic 2015 supplies the perfect tutorial for fledgling players interested in getting their feet wet with the card game but intimidated with the prospect of attending a Friday night game session at their local store or playing against friends with years of experience under their belt. You start by jumping through a brief campaign used primarily to showcase the different card types, and can also access more detailed guides in the help section, filled with combat pointers and deck building strategies. The game even features a store locator for when you’re ready to take your real deck against real people.
The final match in the tutorial demands you choose a pair of colors for your starting deck. Should the choice prove ineffective at subduing the final boss, you can select a different hybrid. However, upon victory it becomes your starting deck, which you must carry through the first campaign in the black plane of Innistrad and some time afterwards until you’ve unwrapped enough booster packs to create your first plausible custom deck from scratch.
Once able though, you’ll find that the deck building process is the smoothest in the series thus far. A sleek set of filters allows you to separate your cards by type, rarity, cost, and color. You can then scan through your trimmed selection and quickly swipe choice cards down into your newly formed deck. A properties bar lets you see the distribution of color, cost, and card types in your deck, and also provides a gauge of the deck’s speed, strength, control, and synergy. You can even select a few prized cards and let the computer auto-complete the deck, although I’ve found I’ve still had to change out a few mundane cards and adjust the quantity of land cards, so don’t hit the auto-complete and blindly head off to your next match.
The best part about the deck building process is how quickly you can put together a formidable library and get into the action, which itself sadly is not as brisk. Having played both the Steam and iPad version, it is very easy to deduce that the interface in Magic 2015 favors the tablet. Scrolling menu screens are designed for finger swipes, as is flicking cards into play during a match and double-tapping cards to glean more detailed information. The mouse, on the other hand, feels like an archaic tool that is cumbersome at navigating the board and menus.
The matches themselves (due to the rules of the game) require some patience. Since players can counter at any point with Instant spells, the game must allow a timer in between each phase. Though brief, games still can drag on, especially when playing four-player matches with dozens of creatures littering the board and all the attack and blocking decisions to be made. Thankfully the game allows you to cut the battle animations, saving you from watching each attack, a lesson I learned after being pummeled into submission during my first multiplayer match against a horde of sixty spiders thanks to my opponent stacking their deck with four Spider Spawning cards.
The storyline of you trailing a maddened Planeswalker named Garruk Wildspeaker is nothing more than brief flavor paragraphs before each battle, linked in a linear series until you reach the final battle in five different planes. You can continue collecting booster packs by “Exploring” a particular plane. Every match plays out the same, with each opponent sporting a specific strategy based on their deck configuration. Some enemies have decks filled with vampires, minotaurs, soldiers with high toughness, or they play with a specific tactics such as trying to empty your deck, large quantities of counter cards, and the like.
What’s severely lacking in Magic 2015 are modes beyond the standard campaign matches and free-for-all multiplayer. There’s no Sealed play, Challenges, or Archenemy single-player modes, nor Two-Headed Giant co-op or Planechase multiplayer modes from previous years. The bare-bones, minimalist approach offers little variety to test your deck building skills.
The visuals follow suit, employing the dominant white with grey accents that makes up the color swatch for this year’s Core Set. Apart from the vivid artwork on the cards, the rest of game is a bland whitewash that strains the eyes more than anything. The metallic quality of the playing field is cold and lifeless, oddly breaching in the center to reveal a red core during the combat phase. Unlockable backdrops are the least that could have been offered to spice up the palette. Animations run silky smooth, though many are recycled from last year’s title. As are the sound effects and music. Nearly everything in the audio department is completely pulled from Magic 2014 ‘s folder, and nothing packs a punch like what I’ve been treated to after hundreds of matches Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft .
Bringing Blizzard’s digital CCG in as a comparison, it’s hard to justify the steep cost of Magic 2015 when Hearthstone can be played completely free. The iPad version of Magic displays a free price tag, but that only gets you through the tutorial and Innistrad. Ten dollars is the minimum to open the full campaign and multiplayer, with a whopping thirty-five smackers required to complete your card collection outright. Premium booster packs can also be purchased, offering powerful cards to those willing to fork over the cash. It borders on a pay-to-win system, although smart deck builders can still take down premium card holders if they play their cards right.
When it comes to the complexity of gameplay and strategic versatility in a collectible card game, nothing comes close to Magic: The Gathering . While the digital version of the series is considered by most fans as a utility to test various deck builds and aid newcomers, it’s still more than a little disappointing to see the focus aimed completely at the deck building process, while stripping away game modes we have enjoyed from past versions. Though it’s still fun to battle opponents without having to fray my cards, dish out game night snacks, or use up gas to go where the in-person action is, I’ll likely return to my Magic 2014 stock, and hope next year’s entry provides more sustenance.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.4 Graphics
Despite smooth animations and nicely drawn cards, the rest of the visuals are very vanilla, literally. 3.6 Control
If you’re playing on a tablet, your finger is in for a treat. Using a mouse or controller? Not such a treat. 3.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Nearly everything is recycled from last year. It doesn’t sound bad, but lacks punch and originality. 3.5 Play Value
The best deck building tools are marred by few game modes to test out your creations. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best